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The U.S. is falling behind in science and engineering; 3 ways to catch up | COMMENTARY

Kids learn STEM skills in Annapolis this summer, as part of the Becoming Leaders Acquiring Critical Knowledge Excellence, or BLACK Excel, program.
Kids learn STEM skills in Annapolis this summer, as part of the Becoming Leaders Acquiring Critical Knowledge Excellence, or BLACK Excel, program. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

In January of this year the National Science Board, which is part of the National Science Foundation, published its biennial report on Science and Engineering Indicators. It captures how the United States compares to other countries from the perspective of degree production, investments in research and development, and scientific articles and patents (as a proxy for technical prowess). Basically, we’re falling behind on every major measure, which means we may not have enough trained people and core competencies to combat climate change, defeat contagious viruses or compete in the growing market for advanced energy systems.

This is a dangerous signal.

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Not only have we closed the borders (even to students) and raised the walls (literally and figuratively) to shared knowledge, we have diluted educational achievement standards at home and outsourced our critical manufacturing capabilities overseas. Turning the tide will require new educational policy, targeted federal funding and visionary executive leadership. Investment in science reveals verifiable facts that we use to live longer, happier, more-affordable lives. It also leads to products and services that we can sell in foreign markets. The only “alternative fact” that matters is that China is eager to assume any mantle we abandon or neglect.

There’s no better example of where misbegotten technology policy has hurt us than the energy sector. The U.S. should be leading in every topic from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to clean electricity generation. China today has almost three times our renewable generative capacity; in 2019 a quarter of their net-new capacity was solar.

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One example of where science-based decisions could better inform our energy policy are small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. Many people immediately reject nuclear power as a viable energy option because of two false perceptions: that it is fundamentally unsafe and that there is no good way to dispense with spent radioactive fuel. However, even well-respected former anti-nuclear advocates, like Michael Schellenberger, have changed their minds on this. Electricity from nuclear plants can be created safely, affordably and without turning radioactive material into weapons.

Another example is hydrogen-based fuel cells, which produce electricity in a way that exhausts only water and heat. The global market is still relatively small, only about $5 billion today, but one analyst believes it could grow to $40 billion in six years; another believes that in 2032 over 5 million hydrogen-fueled cars will be sold worldwide, worth over $250 billion. Almost every major foreign manufacturer has scaled a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) to production, but the U.S. is virtually invisible in the market. Unwisely retreating from FCEVs unnecessarily limits the U.S. from competing in advanced energy manufacturing and transportation.

There are three decisions we can make that would put the U.S. on proper footing.

First, we need to agree that voluntarily relinquishing technological leadership is going to severely hurt our economy and our global political influence. Pushing a coal-based agenda or ripping up environmental regulations is not going to make us cleaner, healthier, more productive or more employable. The last Quadrennial Energy Review predicted that 1.5 million new jobs will be created in the energy sector between 2016 and 2030; in fact, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report, there were 54,000 net new jobs in just energy efficiency alone.

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Second, we need to get serious about exposing our children to core concepts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM curricula. Just because K-12 public education is typically a local or state issue doesn’t mean that we can afford to live in regional isolation, where some school boards promote fundamental physics and others fundamentalist philosophy. Willful ignorance is not consistent with our values and freedoms.

Finally, we need leadership attention and actionable agenda on where and how to invest precious resources into research, technology transfer and export commercialization. And we need to make sure that the international playing field is safe, fair and level for everybody. That means constructive engagement with our partners, and clear and enforceable rules for our competitors. It means less bluster and polemic outrage, and more product demonstrations and value creation.

Greg Douquet is a former Marine Corps colonel, co-founder and managing partner of Red Duke Strategies LLC, and co-director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Veterans Advanced Energy Project. Peter L. Levin (pll@comentcore.net) is a co-founder and CEO of Amida Technology Solutions, and a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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